Drawing Automata Ideas

During our tinkering residency at Chabot, we've started testing out different ways to make art machines that trace a path as they move across the table. Previously we've built scribblers that use an offset weight (hot melt glue stick) to vibrate and create motion. As well, last summer we worked with the tinkering studio team and LEGO foundation to prototype LEGO technic art machines with more complex movements. These initial experiments have inspired us to expand on the ideas and create some key parts to allow for deep explorations while maintaining the frugal materials and recycled aesthetic of the scribbling machines activity. 

The first step to expand the possibilities of the art machines was finding a way to connect to the motor shafts. Adam invited us over to his shop to laser cut a few prototypes that could fit on the little hobby motors as well as attach to some of the slower motors that we've been trying for chain reaction and other workshops.

Back at the loading dock/ tinkering workshop, I tried to make a crank slider mechanism using a wire loop to limit the motion of the arm. Even though the little hobby motor was too fast and not quite strong enough, the q-tip paintbrush paired with the hub made this type of design possible.

I made a second version with two flapping arms connected to a crank slider. This one really looked like a scared bug moving around the table and made some interesting marks when two make-up brushes hit the table. The transparent body added to the design and I liked how the discreet components become part of a larger whole with a lot more personality.  

The thing that really helped us move deeper with this exploration was trying out some of these awesome DAGU motors that are normally meant to be built into electronics projects. We found a few of these plastic motor cases at Al Lasher's and thought we'd give them a try. They have a gear box with slows down the hobby motor. A second version even provides two slow moving attachment points and a fast spinning shaft in one compact package.

With this slow moving motor, the creations started to become even more diverse and we began remixing ideas and creations from other activities. In this soap box art machine, a peg attached to the hub triggered the counter-weighted paintbrush. This device brought in construction techniques not only from the LEGO art machines, but also from cardboard automata.

As well, weight and balance continued to play a big role in the way these machines move. This little snail creature didn’t move until I placed washer on the end of its popsicle stick tail, giving the right weight so that the critter could shake it’s way across the table. The construction reminded me of how toys like the woodpecker on a pole use counter weights and friction to move in life-like ways.


Over the next couple of days, we continued to experiment with different iterations on the theme. This kind of "tinkering with tinkering" activities often results in some really innovative ideas and we were amazed by the variety of outcomes. Others from the museum stopped by the try ideas and offer suggestions and our pop-up space really started to feel like a tinkering workshop.

I'm excited to see how a couple new materials can really open up possibilities for complexifiying art machines and incorporating new ideas to a tinkering activity. This open-ended R&D is invaluable so that we can create a few straightforward but diverse examples, understand some of the challenges with materials and anticipate some of the ways to facilitate the workshop. As we shift to introduce this idea to visitors, hopefully we’ll continue to learn about these ideas and reflect on how this new iteration supports systematic thinking and computational tinkering.